Gloucestershire-based duo The Black Feathers is Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler, a married couple who decided to form a band while on their honeymoon in 2012. From there they began writing songs and playing gigs up and down the country, quickly amassing a following appreciative of their elegant, effortless harmonies and their country folk sound. In 2014 they released their debut EP ‘Strangers We Meet’, garnering airplay from BBC Radio 2 and national press attention, and last week they finally released their debut full-length album ‘Soaked To The Bone’. Aside from a song here and there I was relatively unfamiliar with the duo, but what I was met with were smooth, timeless vocals, rich Americana arrangements pinned by acoustic guitar, folky undertones, jovial rhythms and heart-aching ballads.
The album opens on the cheery ‘Take Me Back’, which positively sparkles with energy and joy – aided by the excellent acoustic guitar work and how their voices soar in unison. There’s an Irish folk vibe to this track (as there is on many occasions throughout the album) that serves to brighten up the delivery and give listeners a reason to dance. ‘All For You’ is another offering in this vein, providing a poetic expression of love, and wisdom gained about the world and one’s own power over it. Fiddle joins them for the foot-tapping ‘Down By The River’, a deceptively melancholic song about hitting rock bottom that cleverly juxtaposes the narrative sadness with the musical joy.
Many of the tracks on this record are particularly visual and metaphoric in their titles and lyrics. From the pouring rain in ‘All For You’ (where the album’s title comes from) to the riverside scene on ‘Down By The River’, the outside settings and weather are songwriting tools the pair often return to. Beautiful album closer ‘Clear Blue Sky’ finds the narrator wishing away the rainclouds and praying for a clear blue sky as a love affair comes to an end; we’re never quite sure whether the affair is an illicit one between two soldiers or whether those references are simply a dramatic metaphor. Elsewhere, the delicate folk ballad ‘Winter Moves In’ finds the couple musing over where the lonely go when winter (perhaps a metaphor for hard times, or the end of a life) arrives.
It’s on the ballads where The Black Feathers shine the brightest, if for their harmonies alone – but the stripped-back arrangements also allow their artful and interesting lyrics more space and thought, and this is to their gain. ‘Homesick’ and their Bob Dylan/Adele cover of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ are such examples; tasteful, magical ballads that would encourage the rowdiest of crowds to fall silent.
That’s not to say that their upbeat songs are bad, as they’re better than the vast majority of bands currently on the UK country and Americana scene – there’s a joy in some songs and a fierce stomp in others that really bring the tracks to life. Each of the eleven offerings feels live in the way they command attention and convey personality, heart and energy. ‘Blind’, for example, stands out because of how it begins rooted in the old Appalachian mountain tunes, like those ancient murder ballads steeped in the minor key. It builds slowly, evolving into a gritty modern Americana-rock piece, the dramatic and purposeful harmonies remaining the focus while distorted guitars flare in the background. It’s a powerful track, full of suspicion as to another person’s intentions, asking them if they would help the narrator were they suffering from an ailment – or turn and walk away.
With the country and Americana scenes becoming ever more crowded in the UK, it can be hard to stand out among many talented individuals. However, The Black Feathers make an effortless success of this task. Their natural talent comes across easily and they manage to keep things simple musically while highlighting the subtle strengths of the songs. I can imagine they’d be a great and compelling live act and that’s surely a sign of a great record – music so good that you need to hear it in the flesh.
Get the record here.